Politics: August 2008 Archives

Obama on Abortion

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I've tried hard to make sense of Barack Obama's various statements, stumbles, votes, and explanations related to abortion. With many of them, I haven't succeeded. I've come to the conclusion that he simply hasn't thought hard about the issue and that he's grossly unaware of many of the important background facts, both about the legal background and the general philosophical conversation about this important issue. I wanted to put my conclusions together in one post, with links to some of the places where I've spent more time on the details for some of these things.

1. Obama misunderstands Supreme Court precedent so badly that he thinks it prohibits using the word 'person' for a prematurely-born infant. Supreme Court precedent does prohibit certain kinds of laws from restricting abortion, but it never does so by defining the moral status of a fetus (it simply ignores that issue as if it's unimportant) or by declaring anything about which human beings count as persons. I've discussed this issue at length here, with some followup discussion here, and those who were defending him in the comments didn't seem to me to have anything that really helped.

2. Obama misunderstands Supreme Court precedent so badly that he thinks he can require the kinds of exceptions to abortion that his voting record shows he insists on (and the Supreme Court has consistently required) while saying that mental health exceptions only mean diagnosed mental illnesses. This is not how pro-choice politicians opposing laws without mental health exceptions have based their opposition, and it's not how the Supreme Court has taken it. Any mental distress or psychological harm counts as a legitimate exception, according to Roe v. Wade, Doe v. Bolton, Planned Parenthood v. Casey, and pretty much all abortion decisions the Supreme Court has rendered where it's come up. (The only exception is the one instance since the 80s when the conservatives have won the day, the second time the Supreme Court heard a case on a partial-birth abortion ban. The removal of the mental health exception there applies only to one method of late-term abortion and not to all late-term abortions.)

What's interesting about this is that it pulls Obama (1) to the left of the Supreme Court on the first issue, to the point of refusing to support a law that requires doctors to comfort and care for born infants who happen to be premature enough that it's unlikely but possible that they'll live and (2) to the right of the Supreme Court on the second issue, to the point of refusing to accept the limit on abortion restrictions that the Supreme Court has imposed, that any psychological trauma, even if not a diagnosed mental illness, can justify an abortion no matter what other circumstances occur (including bans against exactly that instance of abortion). So far there's no inconsistency.

But what Jan Crawford Greenburg points out is that Obama is on record opposing what he's been saying in #2. It's not just that he's on record saying it but has flipped to oppose it. He's currently supporting legislation that opposes his current position in #2, and he's promised that it will be a top priority upon assuming the office of president. The Freedom of Choice Act would basically remove all state and federal restrictions on abortion at any time and for any reason. Is Obama just talking out of both sides of his mouth? Or does he really not understand how badly he's mucked things up on this issue?

Matthew Franck notes that on one of Barack Obama's exam questions from when he was teaching law, he asks whether an equal protection challenge can be brought against a law requiring states to be color-blind. Franck says he knows of lots of people who think the equal protection clause requires states to be color-blind, but he hasn't encountered a serious argument anywhere that such laws violate the equal protection clause. I haven't either, but I don't read law reviews. Still, such an argument isn't hard to imagine, and I think it's actually a sound argument.

The equal protection clause entitles people of all races to equal protection of the laws. The laws therefore need to be able to rely on the distinction between members of one race and members of another if they are to ensure that each race is equally protected by them. Therefore, color-blind laws, which disallow the state from paying attention to race, violate the equal protection clause.

It sounds like a pretty good argument to me. As a policy issue, I don't mind restricting affirmative action in universities to class rather than race, or at least ensuring that the standards aren't lowered as much as they are. There's a significant argument that the way affirmative action is typically practiced in that setting (as opposed to in the workplace, which is a very different matter) seems to me to harm the people it's intended to help, given that admissions officers already go out of their way to promote diversity (so there's no discrimination to combat at that level), and it means accepting people who won't be able to do as well and then will appear less good when they graduate than they would at a lower institution with much higher grades and more time for extracurriculars. There are other negatives too, but that's the one that seems decisive to me. I think it's much better to work at the high school level and below to help kids do better in school, to care more about school, and to think of college as something worth doing.

But I can't see how it could be good to ban affirmative action by not allowing a state to recognize racial distinctions in any way. That sort of law is not just bad policy. It really is unconstitutional because it prevents enforcement of the equal protection clause.

Remember that Born-Alive bill that requires an additional doctor present at an abortion to keep any survivor of an abortion alive? Back in February, I wrote about Barack Obama's insistence on not passing such a law in Illinois, finding it at best puzzling given his party's wholehearted passing of the law in the U.S. Senate, with people like Barbara Boxer and organizations like NARAL endorsing the law.

As I said in my previous post, I don't think it's fair to call Obama a supporter of infanticide (as distinguished from abortion) because of this. At the same time, I don't see any consistent justification for opposing the law, and his own official reason didn't hold up. He said it was because the federal version had a neutrality clause that stated that the law takes no stance on the issue of the moral status of the fetus, while the Illinois law had no such clause.

At the time, it seems that Obama himself had held up a neutrality amendment in committee, so he was the one to blame for the laws not being similar in that way, and that's no reason not to pass the law if you do support the federal one. I concluded that either he didn't really support the federal law (and was thus lying about his views) or he was just inconsistent in the various things he's said without any sense of really believing anything clear on the matter.

Now it seems Obama actually did put the neutrality amendment before his committee. But then he and all the other Democrats on the committee voted against putting the amended law before the whole Illinois Senate. So, again, I'm not sure what to make of this. Is this another example among many of him simply lying about a past position that embarrasses him politically because it's far to the left of the mainstream, hoping no one would catch up with him on it? Or is there some way to put together what he's said with this revelation? I suppose he could have forgotten what his reasoning at the time was, but it's been an issue in the campaign long enough that he should be thinking it through and preparing a response that fits with the actual Senate records.

What possible motivation could he have had to pass this amendment and then still vote against the bill? It's not just inconsistent with what he's been saying happened. I'm not sure it's even internally consistent. What would be the point of voting for the amendment (an amendment that I'm pretty sure the Republicans had added) and then voting against the amended law? Was there some other amendment to the law that his party, who was in the majority on the committee, somehow couldn't get away from the law? That sounds unlikely. But if it was something in the law proper, then why would he say he would have been fine with the federal version?

According to Justin Taylor, Obama had also defended his past actions by saying "there was already a law in place in Illinois that said that you always have to supply life-saving treatment to any infant under any circumstances...." (See the 8/12 JT comment here.) He cites a David Freddoso book that says that's factually incorrect. Perhaps Obama misunderstood the law, so he may not have been lying, but if that's right then he at least hadn't done his homework, which as a legislator he ought to have been doing. This is second-hand information, so I'm open to correction on this, but I think if these things are right, then this piece of Obama's past that already reflected very badly on him is probably at least a little worse than it had seemed.

I just discovered that the Right Reason blog is no longer online at all. It was a politically conservative philosophers' blog hosted at the same server that hosts this blog, and I knew that it had stopped producing new posts, but I didn't expect all the archives to disappear. I managed to recover all the content from the guest-posting I did toward the end of that blog last year, including the whole comment thread on each post. I didn't know about archive.org, but it apparently saves the content of any web page at various intervals so you can go back and check what was once there. So I'm going to be posting that series here on days when I have less time to blog new stuff. Here's the introductory post. I'll put the comments below the fold since this initial post led to quite a lengthy discussion despite its brevity.

Introduction: Christianity and Politics (Guest Posting)

I'm very happy to have been asked to contribute some guest posts to Right Reason for the next week or two. Max asked me to take on the theme Christianity and Politics, and I'd like to use this opportunity to explore Augustine's views on how Christians should relate politically to a religiously pluralist society. I think he has a lot to offer to those current debates, and his views line up nicely with my own in several ways. I don't expect just to present Augustine's views, however. I expect this to be as much about how I see myself as an evangelical and how I relate to the pluralist society we live in, including how religious views can affect both political discourse and ground my support for particular policies.

I imagine some readers of this blog know who I am, since my blog Parableman is listed in Right Reason's blogroll, but I'll say a little about myself for those who don't know me. I'm a Ph.D. student at Syracuse University, working on a dissertation with Linda Alcoff on the metaphysics of race (and races). My primary philosophical background is in analytic metaphysics and philosophy of religion. In addition to my personal blog, which includes discussions of philosophy, politics, theology, and Christian apologetics, I contribute to the philosophy of religion blog Prosblogion, and I was part of the OrangePhilosophy blog when that was active.

NYT Libels McCain

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Remember that ad used against Harold Ford that portrayed him as a philanderer in the 2006 Senate elections? Since Ford is black and the woman in the ad was white, a lot of people concluded that Tennessee voters were intended to draw the connection that this black boy was fooling around with their white womenfolk. I don't think there's any way to prove it in that case, but it sure was a lot more plausible as a possible play on racist sentiment than this current one.

So the McCain campaign comes along and compares Barack Obama to the substanceless Britney Spears and Paris Hilton. Criticize the McCain all you want for its insinuation that Obama is like them, but please don't pretend that it's like the Harold Ford ad, as the New York Times editorial board does. The comparison is revealing, about those making it anyway, but it's logically invalid. I knew some people were touting it about, because someone on NPR mentioned it only to give a pretty decisive argument against it. Nevertheless, I'm a bit surprised to see it being endorsed by the NYT editors on their blog. That's pretty prominent for what I had thought was a position on the extremes.

There was no insinuation whatsoever in the ad that Obama is getting it on with these women. There was no suggestion at all that he's after white women. The ad compared Obama with these women, suggesting that he himself is like them, not that he's doing something with them. Even granting the premise that the anti-Ford ad is playing on racist fears of intermarriage, there simply is no argument that the McCain ad is remotely in the same ballpark. The ad criticizes Obama, but being black should not make remove someone from the possibility of criticism, even unfair criticism, especially in politics at this level. Criticism, even unfair criticism, is not the same thing as racism, and it's not the same thing as attempts to make use of others' racism. This is, in effect, the NYT editors' argument:

1. The anti-Ford ad had a black man and a hot white woman in it, and that was playing on racist fears of intermarriage.
2. The anti-Obama ad has a black man and hot white women in it.
3. Therefore, the anti-Obama ad is playing on racist fears of intermarriage.

It's not hard to see that the argument is logically invalid. There are any number of explanations for why an ad can have a black man and hot white women. The one offered in premise 1, even if it's true, is not the only one or even a remotely plausible one in this case. The ad portrays these white women as moronic celebrities, not as potential lovers for Obama. The point is absolutely clear to anyone with any political sense, and many pundits have criticized the ad in a way that recognizes its point without adding nonsense to it.

So why is the New York Times editorial board making it out to be racism? I have two theories. Either may be false, but I can't think of another, so I'm assuming one is true. Either (a) they're really, really stupid and can't see how fallacious this comparison is or (b) really, really immoral and want to make McCain look like a racist when they know there's no evidence in this ad that he or anyone in his campaign is. The first is uncharitable about their intelligence, and the second is uncharitable about their motivations, so the principle of charity can't help us out. There is no charitable explanation of their behavior.

If it's the latter explanation, then we have good reason to think this constitutes criminal defamation of character. If they know full well that they're lying to make him look like a racist, then it's legally prosecutable as libel. Perhaps they're not directly motivated by wanting him to look bad so much as to defend Obama's recent claims that the McCain campaign would use racist attacks by pointing out just such an attack, but I don't think that matters legally. They know they're lying about something that they know will defame his character. As I understand the law, that's sufficient for criminal defamation, and Wikipedia seems to confirm that judgment. On the other hand, they could believe the above argument is actually a good one, but then they'd be much dumber than you'd expect for people as highly educated as they are.

Bush or Batman?

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A friend sent my brother a link to Bush or Batman?. It's a pretty funny juxtaposition of quotes from President Bush and the Adam West version of Batman, and the people they find on the street can't seem to distinguish which are which. A moments reflection and a quick look here show that they've clearly picked quotes by each that sound like something the other might have said, but the fact that there are so many is pretty interesting. So does Bush talk about evil the way the superheroes he grew up watching on TV did?

(I should say that I'm not sure why some of the YouTube commenters think this entire video is an attack against Bush. There is one line about the Bush not believing the Batman quote about the Constitution, but I could see a Bush supporter even saying something like that, intending it ironically because so many people do think such a crazy thing about Bush. Anyway, I thought the comparison actually reflected well on him.)

I was originally going to connect this with yesterday's post on Obama and Evil because it relates to the way President Bush talks about evil, but I decided not to do too many things in one post. That does raise an extremely important issue. A lot of people complain about the way the current president talks, but they don't realize how grateful they ought to be. If he's modeling his speeches on Adam West's Batman, then we may have just narrowly missed having a president who talks like the Burt Ward version of Robin.

Obama and Evil

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Last year, I expressed my consternation at those who think anyone who talks about fighting evil is relying on a conception of a force of evil, some even going as far as calling it dualist in the sense of good and evil being permanent, equal forces of reality that constantly war against each other. I gave several examples that show this is a normal way of talking that has pretty much no metaphysical assumption about what it means for something to be evil.

There's a tendency on the other side to assume that those who don't speak of evil must not understand it. See, for instance, the criticisms in the comments of Jim Lindgren's post about Barack Obama from about a month ago. Lindgren's argument is very interesting, and I think a lot of what he says is right. He read The Audacity of Hope and concluded that Obama really does think the United States is the best country in the world, rather than hating it as a number of people have pretended, but he thinks it's got some problems nonetheless and most of the time focuses on those problems rather than constantly praising all that's good about the U.S. Since it's my general personality tendency to do the same sort of thing, I have no criticism of that. It's good to point out problems, because otherwise you don't know they're there and thus can't do anything about them, and spending more time pointing out problems than recognizing what's good simply doesn't amount to not recognizing what's good.

On the other hand, Lindgren was looking for hints in the book that Obama has a deep grasp of the nature of evil rather than simply thinking everyone is basically good but misguided. Since I think no one is basically good, and everyone has downright awful motivations almost all of the time, short of the grace of God (which includes common grace and thus is not present just in Christians), I would have to disagree with such a stance. I realize that most people don't share this view. It's fairly extreme, in fact. I do contend that it is the Christian view, however, and if Obama does not think of default human motivational structure as deeply evil, then he does not accept the Christian view of human nature.

I'm not especially interesting in distinguishing between what I think is the biblical view and other, less extreme, views of deeply evil motivations. One might not think most human motivations (short of God's grace) ultimately stem from sin to think that there are deeply evil motivations. What I'm interested is whether Barack Obama admits to the reality of deep evil, not whether he holds the biblical view that takes this to be the default condition of all humanity (although if he's commented on that explicitly, I'd love to hear about it). There is one reason to question whether he does. Should we think someone who recognizes so many problems in the U.S. and points them out, despite having a positive view of the U.S., would also do the same with human beings if it comes to deeply evil motivations? Lindgren didn't recognize anything like that in Obama's book, and I can't remember ever hearing anything from Obama like that.

Has Obama has given any evidence that he believes in the depths of evil rather than just unfortunate structural problems in society and misguided motivations? A number of the commenters on Lindgren's post rightly pointed out that not using the word 'evil' doesn't amount to not believing in it. On the other hand, if Obama's autobiography presents him as a believer in mostly -misguided good at the heart of those who don't see the light as he does, then we probably should wonder if he admits to real evil in the hearts of human beings, short of strong evidence in his language for such a belief. I'm skeptical at this point. I'm curious if anyone can point me to anywhere that Obama does talk about evil in this way. It doesn't have to use the word 'evil' (and a Google search for "Obama evil" isn't going to turn up much that's helpful; I already tried it). My standards for this aren't as high as Lindgren's.

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